3 open source alternatives to Microsoft Publisher

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Open design for paper airplane

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The paperless utopia I imagined I would be living in by now remains a work in progress. As I've thought more about why, I've decided it's the long tail of paper that's holding me back. Sure, almost all of my communications are electronic these days, and my scanner makes quick work of almost everything that comes to me in a dead tree format.

But as I look around my home office and wonder why there are still stacks of paper here and there, I realize there are some things that just make more sense in physical form, at least for part of their existence. I see calendars and brochures and instruction guides. I see posters from events, and even a piece of origami. While you could argue that some of these items could be made obsolete by their digital equivalents, they haven't been, and digitizing them myself is more work than the payoff would justify.

There's another part of the equation, too. Just because I may prefer a digital experience for consuming information, it doesn't mean everyone I interact with shares that preference. Considering the needs of your audience is critical to anyone with a message to convey, and in a world crowded with so many distractions competing to receive your readers' attention, you have an obligation to meet them more than halfway if you expect your message to be heard.

So, despite the many options for distributing your message electronically, printed collateral isn't going away anytime soon. Whether you're producing a button or a pamphlet or a bumper sticker, you need an effective way to lay out the design and blend your text with your images and other brand assets.

The world of proprietary software has brought us many tools for designing layouts, including QuarkXpress and Adobe InDesign among the better known. And Microsoft Publisher still may take the prize (at least for small businesses and individuals) as one of the most-used publishing platforms, owing to its low cost and ease of use to people already familiar with the Microsoft Office suite. Many a church bulletin and nonprofit fundraising letter have been put together in Publisher (or even Word).

But you don't need a proprietary tool to design a great layout. Whether you're using Linux or still stuck on Windows or Mac OS X, there are great free and open source options. Let's look at some of the open source alternatives to Microsoft Publisher for designing your next print layout.

Scribus

Scribus is the gold standard when it comes to open source desktop publishing. With over a decade of active development, you'll find pretty much all the features a basic user would expect inside. It can import a wide variety of formats (including Microsoft Publisher files), and a user-friendly interface makes for a non-threatening learning curve. The large user community also means that there are many great resources out there for those who need additional help, from books to forums to downloadable templates, to fit almost any need.

LibreOffice

Don't want to learn a new program? Both LibreOffice and OpenOffice both provide excellent design capabilities across several of components. While Writer can provide basic layouts, Draw expands the capability even further and is probably the best choice for semi-complex layouts like newsletters or brochures. I even managed to use Impress to produce a scientific poster for a project in grad school, using a template originally designed for PowerPoint that imported just fine.

Markup

The third option, and, hear me out, is to use a markup language. It's not always WYSIWYG, but if you're already familiar with a markup language, why not make use of that skill? And I don't just mean Docbook or LaTeX—for many projects, HTML and CSS or even Markdown works just fine and they let you use your existing tools, whether a text editor or a more full-featured tool just for working with web pages, and you can use the pandoc converter to generate a print-ready format (most likely, a PDF). Maybe it's an unexpected alternative to a professional design application, but it works fine for many purposes.

Alternatively, if you're a LaTeX user, you can try the LyX document processing tool. Lyx is a graphical interface for writing LaTeX, with features to help track and manage style directives and packages.

But why use a markup language for print design? A few reasons. One, it's plain text, so you can version it in Git to track all of your changes and use many different tools on the files directly, even from the command line. Two, it can reduce your production time if you're creating the same documents for web and print. Three, and this is what I like most about markup languages, they're human-readable. I get what I expect when I write code.

Bonus: Inkscape

While Inkscape isn't by any means a graphics layout application, vector illustration applications have been used for layout by many a professional artist. The peculiar advantage that Inkscape has over the others is that, behind the scenes, it works in XML (the SVG format). It also has the flexibility to keep images and other binary assets external of the design file. This means it can easily be version controlled with Git (or similar), unlike other GUI design applications.


Do you still produce layouts for printed collateral? What program do you use? Is it one from this list, or do you use something else, perhaps a tool more optimized for graphics editing like GIMP, or another choice entirely? Let us know in the comments below.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in July 2016 and has been updated.

Jason Baker
Former Red Hatter. Now a consultant and aspiring entrepreneur. Map nerd, maker, and enthusiastic installer of open source desktop and self-hosted software.
Seth Kenlon
Seth Kenlon is a UNIX geek, free culture advocate, independent multimedia artist, and D&D nerd. He has worked in the film and computing industry, often at the same time.

18 Comments

While LibreOffice is a powerful and capable office productivity suites, which I whole-heartedly recommend compared to Microsoft Office, the fact remains that LibreOffice Draw is missing two or three basic and critical functions one would expect of a DTP app going head-to-head with Publisher. Perhaps most remarkably, Draw cannot automatically wrap text around objects (as you would expect, and as is capable in Writer, Publisher, and Scribus).

https://bugs.documentfoundation.org/show_bug.cgi?id=99525

Until this is rectified it's impossible to recommend as a Publisher replacement. What is also curious is the comment under the meta bug report that Draw's focus is on diagramming features, which is somewhat at odds with the marketing.

I've experimented with Scribus but never produced anything with it. The most recent brochure i designed with an Apple product. I've been using OpenOffice and now LibreOffice for years and now I'll give them a try for DTP. Thanks for giving me food for thought.

LyX is all I need.

As a ransom-paying Adobe subscriber, I have been working on my Open Source Graphic Designer skills by using Scribus, GIMP, Inkscape and Blender. I have also downloaded the .iso for Ubuntu Studio to to tie it all in together using Ubuntu 16.04. I've been writing about my progress at: http://www.macharyas.com/open-source-graphics/ So far, I'm liking it and will (hopefully) cancel Adobe in November so I have more money for beer. Thank you.

I think a lot of us would admit we're still not at the point where we can ditch printers altogether.

I'm trying though: I've gone as far as digitising my CV and building a semi-interactive HTML page (responsive, of course) for it, which serves as a code demo as well as a quick-look resource for when I make a new contact. But I felt compelled to create a downloadable version as well because I know recruiters like to peruse them in hard-copy format, for which I designed in Inkscape and merged the pages into a final PDF.

I've used Scribus for ads and articles in several publications, and it's easily as capable as any of the proprietary offerings out there.

I also would not discount Inkscape as a layout tool. It's not necessarily the "right" tool for the job by the traditional art school standards, but enough people use their illustration programme to cheat quick layouts that I think it still counts for something.

publishing is the main tool i use for guideline making

Great article, thanks Jason. We use LibeOffice for most things but still Illustrator for print-ready copy. Gimp is beginning to take over from Photoshop for graphics simply because of its speed - Photoshop takes an age to even open on our older machines, which also have to run Windows - not the nimble, quick Ubuntu I love. We'll have a look at your recommendations - Scribus might well free us from Adobe and proprietary software all together!

Earlier this year I made the transition to do all text work in Markdown and/or LaTeX. Great stuff!

MS Publisher is one of those "thorns in my side" as my wife uses it frequently and I have not found an alternative that provides an easy to use interface with the same positioning and text-flow capabilities.

LibreOffice Writer doesn't handle the placement and interaction of text and pictures very well. I find I nudge something just that little too far and everything on the screen scatters! Maybe it's gotten better.

I actually think LibreOffice Draw is better, but some formatting is not intuitive.

Scribus I haven't used in a long time but when I last used it, it seemed very basic and non-intuitive.

When I sat my wife down in front of Publisher on my work laptop she not only finished the project, but she started exploring and playing with the program. She is an artist and not interested in computers (like most of us here) so this was significant.

Now for image manipulation I use Gimp and all of the computers, Windows and Linux, have Gimp installed so I can help them out on any of the systems without adjusting my thinking for different programs (or "now how do THEY do this?..").

I have done HTML/CSS stuff for print & web documents, but this is very specific. I use Libre Office draw for very basic things, e.g when an unskilled person needs to be edit afterward from time to time.

Most of my graphic workflow:
- Gimp to prepare and export raster pictures
- Inkscape for vector graphics
- Inkscape for complete layout for a "one page" document, no matter the size (poster, roll'up, ...)
- Scribus to create specific multipages document
- Scribus to convert RGB pdf (ex: from Libre Office or Inkscape) to pre-print CMYK pdf
- Scribus to check colors and visual disabilities compliance (very easy in Scribus)

I have never had a negative feedback from a printing company. Scribus is generating fully compliant pdf.

You must know what the printing companies expects: colors, fonts (better to transform text in objects), layers, transparency ... and of course, respect of the printing templates.

For that, the tool is secondary. You should choose what fit your needs and your workflow, like you would choose a perforator in a hardware store. And not use something because of the brand and price.

I have seen many pdf from Indesign rejected, because someone thought that the software would do the job for them.

It's worth mentioning that Scribus also has the ability to import MSPub files, as well as PDFs, the latter either as a bitmapped image or as a vector file. Color management and the ability to export in a variety of PDF versions are also strong points with Scribus.
When you want to incorporate images and vector drawings with very precise placement and adjustments, the various markup choices fall rather flat.

LaTeX works best for me. I use it with Kile and Linux.

Don't know guys, MSPub is pretty good soft to work with documents in word extension and else, but not with pdf's, at least given the experience I had with that. To get this very clear, features on editing such files with publisher are fine, but they seem sort of, don't know, complicated, I just don't know for sure what I actually need to click. In order to work with and edit PDF files I prefer use the online tool like this one https://edit-pdf.pdffiller.com/ I think you may take a glance on it too, because it runs with files in pretty fast way as well as looks quite fresh and nice. And it's supporting all the common systems and platforms, smartphones as well

I mainly recommend Scribus as well. However there are several other options also like Pages, iStudio Publisher for Mac, Publisher Plus, etc. Swift Publisher is also a good alternative which is developed by BeLight Soft.

You can read review for all these software here:- https://www.howali.com/2018/01/microsoft-publisher-for-mac.html

Scribus is awful for anything more than a few pages. It's great at what it does, but the instant you need something with a bit more "oomph" (I had to set over 400 pages, for example) it's hopeless. To be fair, they team are open about this limitation but I think it should be mentioned because it's a serious gotcha for people looking to self-publish their masterpiece.

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